Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Free RPGs for Better or Worse

Like a lot of gamers out there, my disposable income is limited. When a new RPG comes out a new roleplaying game supplement, I can get excited. Then, I take a look at my wallet and think—boy, I have to make some more money. For years, people have been putting out free RPGs, though. More recently, publishers—mostly independent, smaller publishers—have been putting games up for download as a product where you Pay What You Want.

Now, traditionally, these free roleplaying games have had a lackluster presentation. While they may have had some clever ideas, a great deal of them were merely house rules and settings changes for already popular, for-profit, published games. They were often done as a simple text or HTML file, sometimes converted to PDF. Artwork may have been non-existent, little more than stick figure drawings, clip art or cut and paste from public domain art. Some went as far to use art without permission or to ask artists if they could use their work in the free products. Without getting into the ethical debate about what art should or shouldn’t be used, things have certainly changed.

The popularity of digital publishing has made it easier for a lot more games to hit the market. Kickstarter and similar crowdfunding sites have made it possible for other, mostly higher quality games. More people have computers with even basic word processing software that is freely and easily attainable, so the production quality has increased across the board.

Meanwhile, if you know where to look, those games that are not put out for free can be downloaded for free. It really isn’t hard. And, there is research that indicates this helps the hobby. However, it is still frowned upon for all the right reasons. It is funny, however, to see people posting free to download or pay what you want pay schedules on unofficial sites instead of just providing a link to those official sites. Those official sites, like DriveThruRPG help publishers keep track of how popular their games are, even if they aren’t making any money. If a lot of people have downloaded your game for free, after all, maybe there is something viably profitable there. Could you hire better artists, put more time into research or editing, or unleash further products if just a percentage of the people who downloaded your game for free would be willing to pay for new updates?

Now, I’ve taken a look at a lot of games over the years. Some I would never play. It’s not that they are bad games—they just aren’t to my liking. I really don’t like Fiasco, for example, but it’s not a bad game. It’s just not for me. Over at my friend +Adam Dickstein's  blog, BarkingAlien, he put together a Muppets RPG that is quite sound. He actually does run the game, but it’s only format so far is right there on his blog. +Joshua Macy  has published the SFX! Line of genre-based games, and those are all free right over on DriveThru. Lady Backbird, while widely accepted and shared and spoken of in high regards, just isn’t a game for me. And, there are many others out there I simply haven’t found or had the chance to try. Hellcats and Hockeysticks seems absolutely hysterical and while I wouldn’t normally play that style of game, I want to try that one as soon as I get it.

My thoughts of the Pay What You Want were mixed at first. I figured that was, to many people, just another way to say “free RPG.” And, in a way, it is. I am one of those people who will download the games and pay $0.00. However, if the game is good, is something I would play, I will go back and download a fresh copy, paying for it the second time around. It’s like working at the comic book store when someone asks me what something is worth—“Whatever someone is willing to pay for it.” It might be $500 to you. But, that $500 is just sitting around on the shelf collecting dust. Is it worth $100 cold hard cash in your pocket?

If it’s free, where is the risk for you, the consumer? Some time lost skimming through it? Note: a lot of these new games are shorter rather than longer and you can get a feel for whether you like them or not more near the beginning than after reading cover to cover. You may find some gems out there that you really enjoy. I think it’s cool too, because these independent publishers haven’t grown too big for their britches. They take feedback and listen to what people have to say. They answer questions and they are a bit easier to get ahold of because they don’t millions of people trying to track them down.

What cool free RPGs or Pay What You Want RPGs have you seen out there recently?